Thursday, December 7, 2023

FARMSTRONG: Farming is about living the dream

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Nick Bertram has organised his sharemilking business to maximise enjoyment and minimise stress.
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Bertram left school when he was 15, spent a year at a training farm and has been farming ever since. He’s worked his way through the ranks of the dairy industry and after four years of contract milking on two farms he’s now a 50:50 sharemilker.

It’s a nice place to be, he says.

“I really love this job. My dream was always to own my own herd and now I’ve got 450 cows – enough to keep me out of trouble,” he smiles. 

Bertram loves the business side too. 

“I like to describe myself as a businessman, not just a farmer. I’ve always had a passion for the financials.” 

All of which makes him incredibly busy. 

But over the years Nick has learned to manage the workload so he actually enjoys the fruits of his work. 

“There’s no doubt, in farming you do put in some very long hours. So it’s about balancing the hard-out months like calving and mating with some cruisier ones where you can take time off.”

“The start of calving is always challenging. You’ve had a couple of months doing bugger all or maybe you’ve been busy but not calving busy so the first couple of weeks are tough. 

“I try to make sure I’m fit before I start calving, that makes it easier. But the biggest thing is staying fuelled up. Even on my busiest days I always make sure I get up half an hour before I start work and have a good breakfast. If you don’t, you just find yourself getting frustrated at things you shouldn’t and your productivity just goes down. 

“And if I don’t have time for morning tea after milking I make sure I have at least five minutes to smash back a smoothie and some energy bars. I’m more productive after that and certainly in a much better mood.”

Bertram also made getting off the farm a non-negotiable part of his working week. How? He joined the local volunteer fire brigade. 

“The way I look at it, it’s like a sport. I used to do motocross and rugby but when I went contract milking I gave all that up because I couldn’t afford to get injured. 

“The brigade allows me to be part of a team and get off farm. We train once a week and every Friday night we head to the station and have a quiet one and dinner together. 

“It’s been brilliant. It’s great to be part of something that’s not farming related. You spend time as a firefighter and just come back a different person.” 

Bertram books in a decent family holiday in his quiet months – a New Zealand beach holiday at the end of mating in mid January and in the winter usually an overseas holiday. 

He admits, like many farmers, he struggled with that at first.

“I found letting go a hurdle but once you’ve got someone trained you’ve just got to let them do it and not worry about it. 

“Technology can really help too. We’ve got a milk monitoring system so I get alerts on my phone if someone hasn’t done something. That makes me feel like I’m in control even though I’m away.” 

Bertram sees hiring people as investing in his own career longevity. 

“I used to be a one-man band when I was first managing and contract milking and I promised myself and my family then that I wouldn’t keep working like that. It is far too hard on everyone. For instance, we went on a honeymoon to Fiji and I got a phone call at 10pm that night saying there’d been a mix up and nobody had milked my cows. Now when I go away I have the people and systems in place so I don’t have to worry.” 

It’s important to always keep the big picture in mind and remember why you’re farming in the first place. For Bertram it’s all about family. 

“I like to say farming is half of my life and being with my family is the other half. It is easy to forget that sometimes. I’ve got little kids and for me they are the best distraction of all from the pressures of running a farm. If I’ve had a hard long day I just lie on the floor and let the kids climb over me and have a bit of a ball with them.

“I guess I’ve got more used to dealing with the stress of farming over the years but it was challenging to begin with. 

“The thing with farming is that the one little thing that goes wrong can turn into a big thing. But if you’re working too hard and not eating or hydrating or getting enough sleep then any problem becomes a lot bigger than it needs to be.”

“The biggest stress relief for me is making sure I have an off-farm activity so I’m not consumed by farming. For me it’s the fire brigade. You’ve got to have something. It’s too easy, especially when you’re starting out, to get consumed by it all.

“The other thing is get help if you’re struggling. 

“There is Federated Farmers out there, the Rural Support Trust. There is help out there that you don’t have to pay for.  Just give them a phone call and have a yarn.

“I also go to my local DairyNZ discussion group every month because you’ll find everyone is in the same boat with the same problems and it’s a chance to get off the farm as well. One of the awesome things about the dairy industry in NZ is that we’re not in competition with each other. You’ll find farmers are quite happy to share what they know.

“I like what Farmstrong’s doing for rural communities. I reckon it’s good for business too. If you’re looking after yourself mentally and physically you’re going to be more motivated to get ahead.

“I’m living my dream raising a family on the farm and having my own herd. It’s awesome. I’ve never paid a day’s rent in my life or a day’s mortgage for a house and we’re about to have our fourth season in the row of good prices so that’s a dream for us.

“Farming’s a bloody good gig. But you’ve just got to look after yourself.” 

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